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Research shows changing your life for the better starts with incremental adjustments to your habits.

Everyone wants to live longer — and live happier — but our choices don’t always line up with those goals. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that up to 40 percent of deaths every year could be prevented if people changed their habits, but many people find changing their behaviors to be surprisingly challenging.

A new understanding of the science behind behavior change may hold the answer: instead of focusing on big, long-term goals, focus on smaller, incremental steps. “One of the most powerful things you can do when it comes to achieving your goals is to start small and stay realistic,” says Elizabeth Raynor, senior coaching manager at Noom, a behavior change company using psychology to help people live healthier lives. “It’s important to dream big, but accomplishing small goals along the way can help keep motivation strong.”

Attainability

The key, Raynor explains, is keeping your immediate goals realistic. “One area we focus on when it comes to helping our users set goals is attainability. For example, if you want to start an exercise routine and decide next week you are going to work out all seven days, but your schedule for the week is already jam-packed, that might not be an attainable goal. By accomplishing smaller, more attainable goals, you start to build confidence and motivation as you build toward your long-term goals.”

Another key is giving yourself some room to fail. “The fact is, changing old habits is really hard — and almost impossible to do ‛perfectly,’” Raynor says. “If you do have a setback, that’s okay! Setbacks are part of the process. Use it as a learning experience and get right back to your goals.”

One way to turn missteps into learning experiences is to treat them as experiments. An objective evaluation of what caused you to make a bad choice can help you avoid similar situations in the future. “Just as one positive step toward your goals won’t immediately make them happen, one setback doesn’t undo all the amazing progress you’d made.” Raynor stresses.

The science

Noom’s technology is based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which states that our thoughts and attitudes influence our emotions — and our behaviors. “CBT works by helping you recognize common downbeat thoughts or thought distortions,” Raynor explains. “For example, telling yourself ‛I don’t have the self-discipline to accomplish my goals.’ Instead, replace them with new, positive ideas. It is evidence-based and super effective in supporting behavior change.”

Effective behavior change is a three-step process. “The first step is identifying the undesirable habits and becoming aware of them,” she says. “You can’t change something you aren’t aware is happening. It can even help to write them down and observe the thoughts or circumstances that surround them.”

Once you’ve identified habits you’d like to change, the next step is to define replacement behaviors. For example, perhaps you want to eat less candy. The replacement behavior might be to eat more fresh fruit.

The final step is to make the new, healthy behavior easier than the old, undesirable behavior. “For example,” Raynor says, “make it easier to eat fruit by having it on hand and visible, while not purchasing as many sweets, or keeping them in the pantry, out of sight.”

Having people to keep you accountable and using technology like apps can be incredibly helpful in supporting your quest for a happier life, but Raynor stresses there’s one other key tool. “In order to accomplish your goals, you do have to believe you can,” she says. “However, what’s more important is resilience — being able to bounce back and believe in yourself after a setback.”

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